Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Importance of addiction awareness is battle worth fighting

When Kathy Duke lost her 25-year-old daughter Jessica to a drug overdose on January 29, 2021, there was no phone call from the hospital or a knock at the door from the police. There was only silence, and it was maddening.

The longtime Highland Village resident was used to hearing her baby girl’s voice every day, even after Jessica — finally clean for over a year after being in and out of rehab 10 times — decided to live on her own 35 miles away in Richardson. At a minimum, they texted. And each time, Jessica, a 2014 Marcus High School graduate, made sure that her mom knew she was OK.

“I kept calling her and calling her, but she wouldn’t answer,” Kathy said. “So I drove over there, and I was the one who found her. My daughter was a beautiful young woman, and she tried really hard to get better.

“I used to say no one in my house would ever do drugs. I never did them. I taught my kids [about the dangers]. But it happened to us.”

Jessica was another victim in the ongoing drug overdose epidemic, which kills more than 100,000 people annually per the Center for Disease Control’s most recent statistics.

What’s more shocking is that number is an increase of 28.5% from the year before — even as public and private organizations, schools, healthcare professionals, therapists, government agencies, and police departments band together to offer education, support, and resources to individuals and families who need it most.

Before her daughter’s death, Duke joined the board of directors and is now a past president for the Flower Mound-based nonprofit Winning The Fight, which champions all of the above efforts and more in and beyond Denton County.

Her dear friend Kathy O’Keefe and her husband Ben started the initiative after losing their son Brett to a similar accidental drug overdose on March 20, 2010. They even helped walk Duke through the process and emotional whirlwind of putting Jessica in rehab for the first time.

The board has grown to 12 members, many of whom faced similar challenges. The organization celebrates its 11th anniversary in May.

“I want to do anything possible to help Kathy and Winning The Fight,” Duke said. “We know we’ll never get rid of drugs, but we sure want to educate people that what happened to us can happen to anyone from any walk of life. People don’t want to talk about drugs or the reality of it. And they certainly don’t want to talk about mental health. There’s a stigma, and they hide it. They’re embarrassed.”

O’Keefe agreed, adding that the size of this growing epidemic won’t stop them from facing the problem head-on. She wants everyone to know that the people affected aren’t psychologically disturbed, junkies, or criminals. They are normal people from very normal families.

“When we lost Brett, God told me that you have to get out there and do something,” O’Keefe said. Her son overdosed three times in a 15-month period before losing his life to a combination of Heroin and Xanax. “I started at his visitation and realized quickly after talking to several other parents that our efforts were working. We help families get through this maze. Most families do not educate themselves on the destruction of addiction until it happens to them and becomes necessary.”

Winning The Fight has grown beyond O’Keefe’s wildest dreams and continues to make an impact locally. In 2020, they provided counsel to 302 families and facilitated 324 referrals to therapists, treatment facilities, and more. In 2014, they released a documentary film, called “Not Me,” which tells the story of addiction as experienced by eight local families. They now have four documentaries that they use for educational purposes. “Not Me” continues to be shown in schools and churches and the Flower Mound Municipal Court uses the program for many who face charges from drugs and paraphernalia.

But that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Winning The Fight also assists with anxiety workshops such as Just Breathe, therapeutic retreats, court programs, drug education, panel discussions, health classes, drug testing kits, recommended reading, and other support models such as AA and Smart Recovery. Their new “Better Safe Than Sorry” program preaches the importance of locking up prescription and over-the-counter medications, keeping them out of others’ hands.

Collectively, these resources give participants access to professionals who provide hands-on guidance to overcome everything from the addiction itself to mental health issues such as anxiety, fear, depression, trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“If we step back and look at the actual problem, what we should be focusing on is mental health,” O’Keefe said. “When it comes to drug addiction, there are three categories people typically fall into. The first is mental health, such as anxiety and depression, the second is trauma, such as the loss of a grandparent or divorce. The third is genetics. My brother was an alcoholic. He died six months before Brett did, and all four of his kids struggle. When you have someone who is going through one or all three of these precursors, it’s hard.”

O’Keefe said she and her husband failed to recognize Brett’s mounting anxiety at school. He began abusing drugs because they made him feel better. The same was true for Jessica, who struggled emotionally and mentally after her father abandoned their family years earlier. She started with marijuana and Adderall before moving to Xanax and other narcotics.

“She was doing much better — living on her own and working. But at one point, she thought she had COVID, and her job wouldn’t let her come back to work. Naturally, she had to isolate, and the isolation was a lot for her,” Duke said. “It really got to her, and she started using again because of the depression.”

Those personal losses have only fueled Duke, O’Keefe, and the rest of the Winning The Fight board. They are looking to expand their message wherever possible, and their website is designed to be a hub for any information an individual or family could need.

“It’s a very busy time, but it’s a good time,” O’Keefe said. “We’re growing and trying to reach more families who need our help.”

To learn more about Winning The Fight, visit wtf-winningthefight.org.

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